Instead of commanding a group of rugged, blood-soaked mercenaries on a turn-based death crawl through unimaginable horrors, how about a neo-Victorian circus troupe brawling with biomechatronic Londoners? That's Circus Electrique, a turn-based RPG that's much more lighthearted than its Darkest Dungeon counterpart (and seemingly main inspiration). But after playing a preview of the game’s first mission, there's more than meets the eye in this part steampunk RPG, part circus tycoon management sim.
You play as Amelia, a young, bold journalist returning to London to cover the grand re-opening of the Circus Electrique. A metaphorical spanner gets lobbed into the works, however, as the ceremony is interrupted with news that London’s citizens have started attacking each other (more than your average fisticuffs to get on the tube). Oddly, this doesn’t seem to have affected Amelia and your motley circus troupe, who venture out into London’s dangerous streets to find answers.
Each day is structured into two halves: going out into the city to brawl with some Londoners in turn-based battles, and putting on thrilling shows at the circus each evening in a management sim. Why people are still attending the circus through these stressful times is beyond me, but the show must go on, I guess.
Keen to sniff out a story, Amelia hits the streets of London accompanied by four chosen characters from your circus roster. In the preview, I was tasked with fighting my way across the city following a rumour that London Bridge had completely disappeared. You need to choose different paths across a map that can trigger loot drop story events, dialogue sequences where Amelia reveals more about the history of the circus, and fisticuffs with the locals.
Fights are a 4v4 brawl between your chosen characters and whatever Queen Vicky-era archetypes you run into. Circus Electrique is based in an alternative steampunk timeline, so everyone is kitted out in wacky biomechatronic outfits. A posh Victorian lady in all her finery might not seem that threatening, but a critical wallop from her mechanical umbrella and your characters will be seeing stars.
Like in Darkest Dungeon, positioning your group is key to getting the most out of their abilities. Eventually, there'll be a total of 15 different character classes to choose from, but during the preview I only had a chance to mess around with four: strongmen, clowns, escape artists, and fire breathers.
Strongmen are the tanks and should always be at the front of the group for hard-hitting attacks, whereas clowns act as the bards of the group, focusing on buffs for the troupe, so can be placed in the middle. Fire breathers are great for powerful ranged attacks and will sit happily at the back, and escape artists are nice and versatile with a mix of support and offensive attacks. As you progress, more performers with different classes will become available to hire, including acrobats, snake charmers, mechanical bears, and ventriloquists.
As you progress, more performers with different classes will become available to hire, including acrobats, snake charmers, mechanical bears, and ventriloquists.
There are lots of stats and numbers to get into, but the big one is devotion. If the morale of any of your characters gets too low they’ll flee the battle - but that also goes for your opponents. Smattering the opposition with a number of devotion de-buffs can sometimes be better strategically than whittling down their HP. After a successful fight, you’re wooshed back to the circus, meaning you don’t have to hold out for more encounters and can go all-out. If things are going south you can flee, but it involves selecting the flee action for each character instead of a whole group action, making it risky for those left behind. If all of your characters die, they're all gone for good, forever to perform in the great circus tent in the sky.
When you’re not out punching old Victorian ladies, the circus acts as your main hub. This central location has different buildings where you can heal your characters, craft items for battle, hire new performers, and organise circus performances for the day’s end. This is where the second role for your circus roster comes into play. Your performers not only need to be great at throwing down, but also have a talent for thrilling crowds at shows.
Putting on a circus show plays out as a puzzle-like management mini-game. You need to choose which characters will put on a spectacular show while also trying to stick to the performer’s own preferences. An audience expectation meter displays what the show's 'score' will be and is broken down into four categories: laughter, fun, amazement, and thrill. Character stats and their overall devotion to the circus will affect the meter, with different character combinations making it easier to hit audience expectations.
For example, my strongman Balthazar had an incredibly high devotion to the circus but refused to work alongside any fire breathers. Another member of my roster, Phoebe the escape artist, didn’t mind working in any of the show’s positions (opening act, main act, and closing act) but had low entertainment stats. Working out a group of performers who can cover each other's weaknesses, all work together, and put on a good show is a different kind of strategic brain flex than combat encounters. There's also an extra important factor to these shows. Whoever you put into that evening's performance can't venture out for the day's battle, since they're booked and busy. This means juggling your roster becomes a mental mind mapping of your characters and their abilities, making sure you have enough levelled-up talent to cover both.
A daily newspaper called ‘The Illuminated London Voice’ acts as a summary of your activities: how audiences found your circus performance, Amelia’s reports on the status of London's frenzied residents, and more snippets of background info on the game’s world. Details like the newspaper just add to the overall details of what is a very lavishly designed game. The 2D and 3D character models all burst with personality, every piece of dialogue is voice-acted, backgrounds for encounters are always set in different parts of London, and every character attack has a flourish of animation. Every time you put on a show, the game will generate a vintage circus poster with the characters you chose to perform that day. Even the smallest details like HP meters, status symbols and item descriptions, all have their own steampunk flair. I have a soft spot for mechanical and steampunk aesthetics, so after drinking up all the preview's lavish details I felt almost giddy.
I’ve been pretty bewitched by my time with Circus Electrique. There’s just so much to get into. The balancing act of circus performances and street fights forces you to think differently about building a team of fighters, and I'm keen to try out the new classes. The story seems interesting too; there’s mystery and intrigue behind why London suddenly went loopy, not to mention some rather sketchy details surrounding the death of Amelia’s mother and her involvement with the circus. Those mysteries won't remain secret for long, though, as Circus Electrique is out on PC through Steam and the Epic Game Store on September 6.